Life without toilet paper

I haven’t used toilet paper or had a hot shower since March. While the rest of the world was in the throes of toilet paper hysteria, we here in the Philippines looked on bemused, smugly holding up our tabo.

My very first tabo

When I moved into this house, there was no hot water heater. There still isn’t. There’s an electrical outlet where I could install one, but I never have. If you’d asked me two years ago to take a cold shower, I would have said firmly and unequivocally, no.

I love hot showers. I love to stand under the pounding water for long stretches of time, too long, letting the warmth wash over me, feel the hot water cascading over my face, down my shoulders, all along my skin.

Now I throw a couple of buckets of cold water at myself and I’m done.

Actually my shower.

It took a little getting used to, but you just don’t need hot water in the tropics. And a shower, as nice as it is, isn’t useful on days when the water pressure is so low that it comes out at a dribble. That’s when you absolutely need your bucket and tabo.

The tabo is a multifunctional tool, used not just for bathing but also to wash the bathroom, soak your undies, splash your legs when you’ve got mud up them from walking in flip flops, and of course in place of toilet paper.

It’s the toilet paper function that requires a brain shift. How exactly do you do it? Don’t you get shit all over your hands? How do you dry off afterwards?

These are all questions I actually asked years ago of an Italian friend who was trying to convince us of the benefits of a bidet. We were at a luncheon at the home of the Swedish ambassador. It was a large home, befitting the ambassador’s residence, but not ostentatious. And in the guest bathroom was a bidet.

For whatever reason, Australians find bidets not only bizarre, but kind of hilarious.

“No, it’s great,” said M, our Italian friend. “You clean your ass.”

“No,” I said. “It’s weird. You just end up with a wet arse, and then what do you do?”

“You dry it with a towel,” M said.

I was horrified. “Do you all use the same towel?”

“Yes, there’s the ass towel. Like a hand towel, but for your ass.”

The concept was so foreign, so odd, that I couldn’t imagine it. Or rather, I could imagine it, but what I was imagining sounded very messy and not at all hygienic.

Living in the Philippines has forced me to reflect on many of my ideas. I’ve had to rethink and change, because some things don’t make sense here. Well, generally speaking, most things don’t make sense here, but that’s a whole other story.

Take hot showers. I love hot showers. And I have always hated cold showers. Not just hated – abhorred, loathed, despised cold showers. Even on the hottest day, I couldn’t take a cold shower. I would get chills just thinking about it. 

Once on a trip to Melbourne in winter, the showers in the hostel were tepid. Tepid! I was not going to strip naked for tepid water. I didn’t shower for ten days.

And yet now, twice a day, I subject myself to a cold splashing from my tabo. When you spend all day covered in sweat, it comes as a relief to feel the cool water running over your skin.

There are dozens and dozens of things that I do here in the Philippines that I would never have done in my previous lives. And one of those is washing my bum with soap and water after every poo. And yes, I also have a bum towel.

It turns out that using a tabo isn’t messy and unhygienic at all. In fact, quite the opposite. You just need to know what you’re doing. Like anything in life, it looks weird or difficult until you understand it. And then it makes sense.

How to use a tabo to go to the toilet

Using a tabo on the toilet is just like washing your bum in the shower. If you’ve never washed your bum in the shower, then you have bigger problems.

Basically, you get some soap and make a lather in one hand. Take the tabo in your other hand and fill it with water. Then you just wash your bum with your soapy hand while pouring the water from the tabo down your crack. Yes, you have to actually touch your bum, but you do that in the shower anyway, right? And between the soap and the water, you’re never in danger of getting any poo on your hands, so don’t worry about it.

Most people think using a tabo will be messy because using toilet paper is messy. But actually, toilet paper is what makes going to the toilet messy. Once you remove toilet paper you remove the mess.

I think this misconception comes from seeing nappies. When you take a nappy off a baby, there’s just a poo explosion. Poo everywhere. You need countless wipes and water and powder and all sorts of stuff to clean that up. But that’s because a baby is pooing into an object which is close to its bumhole. When you think about it, it’s a weird way to go to the toilet. It’s like taking a shit while sitting on a table. The nappy does an excellent job of smearing poo all over the baby’s bum.

Babies in China don’t wear nappies. They wear pants with a hole in the back and when they want to go they squat – anywhere – and go. This is less messy than it sounds. Just a quick wipe, scoop up the poop like you would for a dog, and you’re done.

Picture an animal taking a poo. Listen, we’ve covered a lot of weird ground in this post already, so go with me. Think of any animal you like – a dog, a cat, a zebra, a mole rat. Picture an elephant taking a poo. It pushes it out, letting gravity do its thing. Most dogs don’t end up with shit all over their backsides. So why do humans?

The answer: toilet paper.

When you take a dump in the toilet, gravity is doing most of the work for you. It pulls the poo away from your bumhole and down into the water. Once that thing snaps off, you shouldn’t have too much to clean up unless you start smearing it all over your bum with paper. 

A quick splash and wash with the tabo, and you’ve got a squeaky clean bottom.

The bum gun

I favour the tabo because it’s practical and simple. You can turn any vessel into a tabo if you’re really desperate. When I was back in Croatia, I fashioned my own tabo out of a plastic bowl.

But the alternative is the bum gun. This is a magnificent tool. If you’re considering installing a bidet in your bathroom, I urge you to try the bum gun, instead. It attaches to your plumbing and shoots a stream of water wherever you aim it. Much less fuss than a bidet and multitudes better. Plus, you can use it to clean streaks off the toilet, shoot mould out of the corner of the shower, or have a water fight in the bathroom.

As amazing as the bum gun is, I’ll bet there are dudes who won’t go near it. I read a horror story on Reddit once about a girl who was worried about her boyfriend. I won’t appall you with the details, but basically he was leaving shit stains on the bed sheets. Dude was so afraid that cleaning his bum in the shower – i.e. actually touching his bum – would turn him gay or something. The fact that we live in a world where dudes believe this is just mind-boggling to me. But what was worse was that there were dozens of replies from women saying that their boyfriend’s also have poo streaks in their undies! It’s the 21st century and dudes are afraid to clean their arses!

Time for change

There are so many things about the Philippines that have forced me to change my mind. I can’t even begin to catalogue them, although I plan to explore more of them over the coming months.

2020 and COVID and lockdown have forced many of us to question what we think of as normal or right or just how you do things and for me, that has been compounded by living in a slum in a third world country.

During lockdown, many people re-evaluated their relationship with toilet paper. It became a rare and valuable commodity. People can’t imagine not being able to wipe themselves after an ablution. It became a symbol of preparedness.

It’s time to go one step further. Don’t just wipe your arse; clean it. Install a bum gun or a bidet. Or, if you can’t afford extra plumbing, simply procure yourself a tabo.

That way when the next pandemic hits, you’ll be ready. While everyone else panics, you can be a cool frood, looking on at the hordes, and say – I got a tabo. And I know where my bum towel is.

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Nat Newman

Nat Newman is an award-winning writer of short stories, content, podcasts, feature articles, drunk text messages and, soon, a novella.

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